Gilligans Island 

In her first novel, a pioneer of gender studies explores the isolation of love

In 1996, Time magazine named Carol Gilligan one of the 25 most influential Americans. An academic who focuses on gender studies, Gilligan is best known for challenging the early feminist assumption that, given the same expectations and opportunities as men, women will behave much like men themselves.
by Lacey Galbraith

In 1996, Time magazine named Carol Gilligan one of the 25 most influential Americans. An academic who focuses on gender studies, Gilligan is best known for challenging the early feminist assumption that, given the same expectations and opportunities as men, women will behave much like men themselves. Her 1982 book, In a Different Voice, argued persuasively that men and women are inherently different. (Readers of the silly and reductive Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus may not want to thank her.)

Kyra (Random House, 241 pp., $25) is Gilligan’s first published book of fiction. Set primarily in Boston and the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts, the novel is, perhaps surprisingly, a love story—rich, lyrical and high on romantic angst. But, equally surprisingly, the book also contains flashes of a rare humor. Kyra is an academic professor of architecture and design at Harvard, and Gilligan’s observations on ivory tower culture are subtle and entertaining. Faculty meetings are “the academic equivalent of social life,” and jargon is the way to one-upmanship, “the word hegemonic having become a four-syllable way of saying bad.”

In 1996, Time magazine named Carol Gilligan one of the 25 most influential Americans. An academic who focuses on gender studies, Gilligan is best known for challenging the early feminist assumption that, given the same expectations and opportunities as men, women will behave much like men themselves. Her 1982 book, In a Different Voice, argued persuasively that men and women are inherently different. (Readers of the silly and reductive Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus may not want to thank her.)

Kyra (Random House, 241 pp., $25) is Gilligan’s first published book of fiction. Set primarily in Boston and the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts, the novel is, perhaps surprisingly, a love story—rich, lyrical and high on romantic angst. But, equally surprisingly, the book also contains flashes of a rare humor. Kyra is an academic professor of architecture and design at Harvard, and Gilligan’s observations on ivory tower culture are subtle and entertaining. Faculty meetings are “the academic equivalent of social life,” and jargon is the way to one-upmanship, “the word hegemonic having become a four-syllable way of saying bad.”

Gilligan has said that the ancient story of Dido and Aeneas inspired her novel. Kyra’s husband died years earlier on the island of Cyprus, his murder a political act committed by her half-brother. When she meets Andreas, whose wife disappeared under Hungary’s oppressive communist government and is presumed dead, she understands that neither of them has ceased to mourn. But after Kyra agrees to help Andreas with the set design for his upcoming production of Puccini’s Tosca, they give in to love nevertheless.

When Andreas leaves, Kyra is bewildered by her own devastation. “I had done what I had vowed never to do,” she says. “I had opened myself to another man.” Befitting Kyra’s intellectual nature, she works to make sense of love’s irrationality. She finds a therapist, their relationship unique and unconventional, and she “digs at the site” of the wound Andreas has left.

“Every life has its leitmotif, its distinctive whorl,” observes Kyra, and Gilligan’s earlier work as an acclaimed chronicler of human behavior plays into her strengths as a novelist. As Kyra says, “In many ways, we were looking for the same thing. Something real that we could believe in.”

Carol Gilligan appears 7 p.m Feb. 21 at the West End Borders Books.

—Lacey Galbraith

Gilligan has said that the ancient story of Dido and Aeneas inspired her novel. Kyra’s husband died years earlier on the island of Cyprus, his murder a political act committed by her half-brother. When she meets Andreas, whose wife disappeared under Hungary’s oppressive communist government and is presumed dead, she understands that neither of them has ceased to mourn. But after Kyra agrees to help Andreas with the set design for his upcoming production of Puccini’s Tosca, they give in to love nevertheless.

When Andreas leaves, Kyra is bewildered by her own devastation. “I had done what I had vowed never to do,” she says. “I had opened myself to another man.” Befitting Kyra’s intellectual nature, she works to make sense of love’s irrationality. She finds a therapist, their relationship unique and unconventional, and she “digs at the site” of the wound Andreas has left.

“Every life has its leitmotif, its distinctive whorl,” observes Kyra, and Gilligan’s earlier work as an acclaimed chronicler of human behavior plays into her strengths as a novelist. As Kyra says, “In many ways, we were looking for the same thing. Something real that we could believe in.”

Carol Gilligan appears 7 p.m Feb. 21 at the West End Borders Books.

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